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Okay, so that hurt. Burning, biting pain overwhelmed by the sensation of his body armor melting, as in physically melting and scalding against him. He thought he smelled smoke but, really, that could be his skin or the weapon at this point and he was not certain he was in a place to discern the difference.

“Hawkeye, report,” came the cool and collected voice of his handler in his ear. He opened his mouth to respond, but found that, yeah no, that was not happening right now.

There were footsteps and pounding and he really hoped it was not the bad guy of the week coming to finish him off. The voice in his ear overlaid it all, repetitive, repeating, sounding oddly tinged with panic around the fifth cycle. It was strangely relaxing, he could drift to this, close his eyes and let the voice carry on and on and yeah, that could work. Of course the voice had to choose that moment to change and demand, because really, that’s what it was, “Barton, talk to me!”

He willed the words to come, the sarcastic comment, the full sit rep, the warning that these guys may in fact have armor-piercing rounds. Instead, the only thing he managed was a weak, “Boss?” It was gaspy and fluid and so not helping his inner mantra that everything was fine, everything was going to be okay.

“I need eyes!” Coulson demanded, and there was another joke that floated by before he had the chance to exploit it.

There was a whir and a whine and then a voice that was too loud and too tinny said, “Shit, Barton’s down.” There was a blast, the heat close enough to feel skitter across his skin. “I took out the guy who took him out, but I don’t think it’s safe to move him yet and Cap and the clichéd bus full of kids need me on the other side.”

“Stark, bring me to him and then help Rogers,” Natasha demanded and Clint could see her, could picture her grabbing on to the big red suit like a damsel in distress if that damsel was capable of kicking your ass.

The whine disappeared and then returned and there was a clank along with the footsteps and Natasha yelling at Tony to go already, that she had this, and then there were hands, warm and scented with leather and metal and maybe a little blood cradling his face and urging his eyes to open as much as any words she was actually whispering. He tried because it was an innate thing to listen to Nat in times like this, to listen to her always, really, and he saw her face slowly come into focus, streaked with black and brown and haloed with the red of her hair and the blinding sun behind her.

“You with me now?” she asked. Her fingertips were fine points along his skull. He nodded and they held him steady.

She released his head, but her fingers never really left his body, trailing down and over feeling for additional injuries or broken bones along his neck and shoulder, right side and then left of his chest until they found the gaping, smoking wound. She swore, low and violent and then pressed her palm over it with far more force than he thought was strictly needed and then it was his turn to swear.

She pulled a field bandage out of the tiny pack at her side and pressed that down, frowning at something he couldn’t quite see. “Coulson, be advised, it appears they are using varying, non-standard ammunition,” she reported.

“Explain,” came the expected reply.

Her fingers poked and prodded and he did not scream, but it was a near thing. “Burns hotter, possibly has a charge or chemical included to increase the damage,” she said, but there was a slight uplift at the end of her tone as though she was trying to sort something out.

“Do not touch it without the proper protocols,” Coulson ordered. “I’m sorry, Agent Barton, but if the chemical spreads...”

And yeah, Clint got it. If it burned through experimental Kevlar, it was going to be hell on skin. Of course Nat getting it was another thing all together. There was another poke and he looked up to see her looking right at him, eyes locked in both worry and an understanding he was about to be privy to. Her hand, her bare hand, was red with blood he assumed to be his own, slick between fingers she rubbed together easily and without pain. “Is this new armor?” she asked, voice in the eerie calm that usually did not bode well for others.

Clint grunted and tried to stay conscious as this was important, he knew it was important. “R&D has been working on upgrades for months,” he reminded her, and she knew this, he knew she did. “This was in my locker this morning so I grabbed it and ran. Lighter than the last test piece, not sure if it’s been fully vetted.”

“You wore untested armor out to the field?” Coulson asked, incredulous even through the comm.

Clint shook his head and then remembered his handler probably couldn’t see it, not to mention that it hurt to rub his head on stone and concrete. “Figured if it was in my locker, it was good to go. Old stuff was gone anyway.”

“Sir?” Nat asked. She shifted to hold the bandage with one hand, the other tugging on the armor itself, a piece of it bending beneath her fingertips.

“Checking on it now,” Coulson assured them both. “How many others had new armor this morning?”

Thor of course had not, and replied the same. Tony replied with a rant about no one from SHIELD ever touching his stuff, thank you very much, so his was his and his alone. Bruce had no armor to speak of. Cap? Was oddly silent.

“Captain?” Coulson prodded.

There was a crash and a bang and an eventual, “Suit was the same this morning.” Clint swore he heard the collective sigh of relief, right up until Steve added, “But the armor inserts are lighter, a little more flexible. We were due for upgrades, so...”

“Does no one actually wait for the paperwork?” Coulson muttered, and Clint could see him, safe in the van, finger to his earpiece and free hand massaging the deepening line across his forehead. The commentary was quickly followed by a very pointed, “Widow, don’t think I didn’t notice you not replying.”

“I am busy trying to keep Barton’s insides on the inside, sir,” she responded just a bit too crisply. When she was met with only silence over the line, aside from the continuing gunfire and explosions, she relented, “My suit was replaced as well. There was a yellow form that approximated R&D’s standard attached. Given that I had no time to test it prior to this current exercise, I appropriated my back-up suit from its compartment instead.”

“So you almost listened to protocol, at least there’s that,” Coulson griped. There was another pause and Clint honestly wasn’t sure if people were falling silent, or if he was fading in and out at this point. He did, however hear it when Coulson, voice like acid, reported, “Agent Hill has discovered similar yellow slips in Captain Rogers and Agent Barton’s lockers. They appear to be the standard form, but without the proper authorization notated.”

“We were set up,” Clint grimaced.

“HQ is in lockdown, only medics personally vetted by Hill or Fury authorized,” Coulson continued his update.

“We have a man down!” Tony shouted, clearly more than a little pissed at the situation.

“Yes, I understand that,” Coulson said, and it sounded like he was moving, possibly quickly. “The priority here is to get Captain Rogers off the street and provide what medical attention we can to Agent Barton until this is sorted.”

“Not leaving until these kids are safe,” Steve protested, adding an extremely belated and possibly slightly belligerent, “Sir,” at the end.

Coulson sighed. Clint was getting used to the sound. He was also getting used to the blinding pain and that was never a good thing. “Thor, protect Captain Rogers. Iron Man, give me a lift to Barton,” Coulson ordered and Clint opened his eyes enough to watch Natasha’s go wide. Coulson on the ground was never a good thing. It was the opposite of a good thing. It was a thing that usually meant the mission had gone so pear-shaped that there was a veritable orchard of fail about to hit them all.

“Orchard?” Clint mouthed, and earned a grim grin from his companion in return.

There was another whine of repulsors and then the thunk of a landing and Clint really wished he had been able to see Coulson piggyback on Stark, that really would have been the highlight of his extremely sucky day. “I can move him,” Tony offered. “I mean, if there’s nothing broken that I’ll make worse by doing so. I'm not much more than a glorified ferry at this point anyway, why not make it a personal ambulance?"

“Either we treat him up here or we treat him down there,” Natasha shrugged. It was clear they only trusted themselves at this point. “Up here is at least out of direct line of fire.”

Tony made some sort of noncommittal noise, Clint wasn’t sure if it was actually words because that whole consciousness thing was a loose and fleeting thing at this point. Coulson had a response and he must have won because soon enough Tony was flying off again, calling down to the others that it was time to wrap this party up once and for all.

There was a hand on his face that was decidedly not wearing leather and if he opened his eyes for Nat he sure as hell was going to for Phil. “Hi, sir,” he managed to slur.

The hand was removed and there was the sound of gloves being opened and snapped into place. “Romanov, provide cover on the off chance the others miss someone,” Coulson ordered.

Natasha nodded and moved away, leaving just the senior agent turned medic and Clint couldn’t stop himself from asking, “You sure you’re authorized for surgery, sir?”

“No,” Coulson replied with a quirk of his lips. “But when has that ever stopped me from stitching up your ass in the past?” He only meant that literally for one occasion, but it still brought a smile to both their lips. It was a joke that, like them if they stayed in this line of work, would never grow old.

He poked and prodded with the same delicacy as Nat had, which was to say not a lot. It kept Clint awake though, so there was at least that. It also meant that his eyes were at least partially open when Coulson did something that really and truly should not have been possible: he cut through the offending armor with a pair of scissors meant for slicing through gauze pads and tape.

“Boss?” he asked, unsure if he was seeing things. It was entirely possible he was hallucinating at this point, either due to his injuries, or to some sort of narcotic that was doing a piss poor job for pain management.

“A t-shirt!” Coulson shouted. “A t-shirt would have offered you more protection than this... this, crap.”

“Whoa, boss, coming close to profanity there,” Clint mused. And there, there was the sharp prick of a needle. Either pain deterrent or antibiotic, he wasn’t sure. He was going to pretend it was the former even though he knew the need for the latter.

Coulson carefully lowered the syringe and returned to mopping up what appeared to be copious amounts of blood. “You want profanity, Barton? Some asshole just replaced my god damned agents’ gear with the equivalent of fucking tissue paper against hand grenades and sent them out into the field. I’m going to track down whoever was involved in this and feed them their own spleens.”

“You get points for creativity, especially with the spleen thing,” Clint told him. He cut a look over to Natasha, who nodded easily, eyebrows raised but face otherwise impassive. Stark, of course, chimed in over the comms, which led to general babble between him and Rogers and occasionally even Banner and Clint really felt himself drifting again so, yeah, more than penicillin in that little vial.

He was shook awake by an explosion that rocked the very building he was splayed out across on and there was a hand on his face again, like people thought they were being reassuring to block his line of sight. “Back with us?” Coulson asked. His side was still agony, but the squishy warm kind of agony, and he took that to mean he was as patched as he was going to get right now.

“What’d I miss?” he managed. He would love some water right now. Or maybe beer. Yeah, beer would be better.

“No beer,” Coulson said drily. He wasn’t sure if he had actually said the words aloud, or if Phil was just being Phil again. “As for what you missed, Iron Man and Hulk just destroyed the last of our current enemy, and then Stark and Thor flew off to take on whoever was dumb enough to give you faulty equipment, possibly with extreme prejudice.” He looked over to Natasha, who looked over the side and flitted a smile as though she agreed with the assessment and/or wished to assist them in their endeavors, before he continued, “Hulk is standing watch over a rather irate Captain America to ensure no one else takes advantage of the current weakness.”

“I’ve taken on far worse situations with far less than your fancy metals in the past, sir,” Steve’s voice sounded, loud and clear.

Coulson, of course, was unimpressed. “That was the forties. We’ve moved on since then,” was all that he would reply.

Clint could almost hear the eye roll Steve offered and that was something in and of itself. Few people expected the good Captain America to offer attitude. Few people worked closely with him on a daily basis. "I'm coming up," Cap said vocally though, just enough of a "try to stop me" to his tone to be heard.

"Because, really, we should have as many of us in one unstable place as possible while at our most vulnerable," Natasha muttered. Louder, she asked, "What is Banner's status?"

"Banner is Banner again," the man himself replied. "The Big Guy must have felt the threat had passed, or that I would be of more use than him right now." And didn't that just throw Coulson's argument out the proverbial window? Then again, it was entirely possible that the Hulk trusted Steve's judgement enough that if he said they were good to go he was going to roll with it.

"And I'm certain that the transformation had nothing to do with Captain Rogers explaining Agent Barton's current condition and reminding the Hulk that his counterpart had experience with medical trauma situations," Coulson said wryly.

Yeah, Clint thought, they definitely knew each other far too well.

There was a loud creak as the rusty door to the roof slid open and he was about to comment about Cap making record time up the twelve flights of stairs and that he better have not have left Bruce behind, but that thought was interrupted by the sound of gunfire and it took him an embarrassingly long time to figure out that, no matter how protective Coulson and Romanov got, they probably were not actually shooting at their own team.

From his position laid out flat and relatively immobile, he could not actually see what was happening, but he could hear the return fire followed by much profanity and accented by more than a single crash and he could feel the weight of someone bodily covering him. For several long moments, there was only sound and pressure, flitting shadows and a rare burst of light behind eyelids that felt far too heavy to open, even now. It was the roar that did it though, too loud and too close and that's when he got an up close and personal glimpse of the Hulk, arched over him as a living, breathing, impenetrable shield.

"What happened?" he asked when he was able, when the only remaining sound was the harsh breathing of his mutated friend mingling with his own uneven attempts at obtaining air.

"It's okay, good job," he heard Coulson say, and knew it was not directed at him. The darkness and hint of pressure lessened and the ground shook as his guardian stepped away before Phil leaned over him and explained, "Stragglers in the stairwell. Taken care of now, and everyone is fine."

"Not everyone," Natasha contradicted. She didn't sound pained or injured in any way, just resigned.

He managed to turn his head to the side in time to see Cap sink to his knees, a smattering of sparks flying from a bloody gash in the shoulder of his suit before they faded and the stench of burning fabric and flesh began. Even Steve flinched, as in actually looked seriously pained as he made a feeble grab at the offending injury. The Hulk beat him to it though, and yanked the piece free, fabric, armor, and possibly a tiny bit of flesh included, and chucked it across the roof.

Steve took a moment to steady himself, physically as well as mentally, before he gasped, "Thanks, big guy." His shoulder was an angry red and still dripped freely, right up until Natasha pressed another bandage from Phil's pack against the worst of it.

Clint's eyes were drawn away from his teammate's obvious discomfort, and towards where the chunk of former armor lay against the gravel. The edge that had scraped against the ground near the empty shells did the thing where it sizzled for a moment before it curled up and smoldered into a bubbled heap.

"It's not the rounds, it's the plating," he commented, more to himself than to their others. He was not at all surprised when more than one of them heard him.

Coulson kicked the piece with the toe of his shoe and watched while it repeated the process, only slightly subdued in comparison to the original result. He cocked his head to the side, clearly contemplating the ramifications, but any conclusions were interrupted by Natasha's announcement of, "It's both."

A shell lay beside him, not at all surprising considering the recent gunfight, and it's edges were curled in bubbled in a near identical manner to the armor. She picked it up, but dropped it quickly, a wince marring her already smudged features before she rubbed two very red fingers together. The shell bounced atop the rooftop, each strike distorting its near cylindrical shape even more.

Cap pried another piece free from his suit, wisely using his gloves to do so, and offered it to the waiting Coulson. With a pointed look at Natasha, he picked up another shell with a pair of tweezers from the medical kit and dropped it on the supposed protective gear. The result was instantaneous: sparks and smoke and melting until a gaping hole remained.

"I'm guessing that's not a good thing," Steve said, sounding far more like himself already. Clint was in no way jealous of the superhuman healing abilities, really he wasn't. He was more concerned with the way the red still had not faded from Natasha's fingertips and she was absently flexing her hand as though trying to work through more than a little discomfort. She hadn't done that before, when touching solely the plating, which meant each part was separate with separate individual dangers and worked together to create one very annoying whole.

"Nat?" he asked, knowing he was drawing attention to her and that he would pay for it later, but not caring.

She ignored him though, and instead said, "Not good at all, especially considering a shell is still in Barton." And that very much explained the lingering, burning pain that just would not fade. He had been shot before, burned with acid before, shocked through with all types of electricity, and yet this lingered like no other. It was annoying, to say the least. Her announcement took that annoyance to a whole new level though.

"Well then," Coulson said with a calmness that was beyond strained at the edges. "We need to get it out of him."

Clint closed his eyes against the inevitable, could picture the med kit with its scalpels and other various implements, knew they were being pulled out one by one, knew exactly where they were headed even before he felt the bandage, so recently applied, pulled back to reveal his wound to the world around him. "Yeah, I was afraid of that," he sighed. He wondered if he could talk them into upping the pain meds, just a bit, because SHIELD was not known for providing local anesthetics in its kits, and this was going to hurt like a bitch.

They unbandaged his wound completely and verified the bullet had not gone through to the other side, even though he would have been laying in a much larger puddle of his own blood if it had. There was poking and prodding and an angry Hulk refusing to return to Banner status despite the fact his counterpart had a decent amount of medical know-how. Big and Green paced instead, growled at the slightest noise, ripped the door to the roof off its hinges and possibly drove it through the man who had actually shot Clint - he started to black out at that point, so he couldn't be sure. He just remembered his green friend, side by side with Steve in his red, white, and blue, less than silent sentinels watching and guarding their charges.

He didn't remember much of the impromptu surgery save for the pain, biting and raw atop the underlying burn. He was fairly certain he swore up a blue streak, and possibly screamed more than once. He had vague memories of Nat holding him down and requesting Steve's assistance with the task at least once, and of a wetness on his face that he was secure enough in his masculinity to admit were tears. When he came back to himself, the pain had changed to the sharp bite of a healing incision instead, and a soft cloth was pressed against his cheek even as yet another bandage was pressed against the wound.

He listened for a moment, hearing his own pounding heart as much as he heard Natasha provide translations to some of the vulgarities she had uttered to an undoubtedly embarrassed Captain America. When he thought he could breathe again without it turning into a deafening roar, he asked, "Did you get it?"

The softness was replaced with coolness, a hand pressed against his overheated skin. He was going to need so many antibiotics for this stunt, if sepsis didn't somehow kick in before SHIELD's wonder drugs. The hand was Steve's but the voice that answered him was Coulson's and he promised, "It's out." He said more, probably about the amount of damage it caused going in and how much they themselves caused getting it out, but Clint didn't really hear any of that, finally giving in to the urge to fully and completely pass out, safe in the knowledge his team would watch over him.


He awoke briefly to find himself strapped to the unwieldy security of a gurney, the rattle and shake of it echoing as it was loaded into the familiar hum of what could only be a Quinjet. He must have made a noise - or possibly not considering the group he hung around with - because there was another hand pressed against his face. It was smaller, lighter, and likely far deadlier, and the fingers stroked lightly through his hair in a steady pattern in time to a Russian accented murmur of familiar reassurances. They were nothing more than noise, and they both knew it, but he let the rhythm of the action guide him back into the welcoming darkness.


The next time he woke, there was a different sort of rhythm about him, this one a ping that matched his pulse. There was the chilled tingle of fluids being pumped through his veins and the pinpricks of multiple needles along his arms and the backs of his hands and the press of a blanket that was both not warm enough and suffocating in its confinement where it was tucked just under his chin.

"Well, that sucked," he said by way of announcement of his return to consciousness.

He was not surprised when multiple chairs scraped along the linoleum, and simply took silent bets as to which face would swim into view first. Natasha's appearance to his left was a given, though Bruce's near simultaneous arrival on his right was new.

He squeezed her hand when she offered it to him, but looked to Bruce first, knowing the good doctor would always give it to him straight. As expected, Banner cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses, and began with, "The bullet was removed, but you will be on a regiment of high potency antibiotics for several days."

"The damage?" he prompted. Steve handed Natasha a cup and straw and she pressed it to his lips, so his voice must have sounded as good to them as it did to him. He was kind of hoping for something other than boring, freezing ice water, but would take what he could get at this point. It cooled his throat even as it chilled his body, but was still a tiny piece of heaven after the most recent hell he had been through.

Bruce adjusted his glasses again, which was never a good sign. "The good news is that the chemical makeup of the alloy actually helped cauterize the wound caused from the path of the bullet," he told him. He then frowned and added, "The bad news is that some of that cauterization had to be removed as it had damaged the tissue in unhealthy ways."

Natasha held the straw to his lips again, but he turned his head slightly to the side to avoid it and asked, "How long?"

"Oh, you're going to be in here for days," Coulson said from behind Bruce's shoulder. Clint glared in his general direction and thought many unkind thoughts about the handler that knew him too well.

"We've been assigned to make sure you stay this time," Steve helpfully supplied with a grin. Clint wondered why people always thought he was so good and wholesome when he could be downright evil when he put his mind to it. He also wondered how much was watching to make sure he stayed and now much was watching to make sure no one else was dumb enough to make a move while he was down and out.

He looked to Nat for help, but should have known better. She was never the forgiving one, especially after his blood was spilled. "Assigned, volunteered - same thing, really," she said with a droll voice that did nothing to hide the underlying concern, and he did not bother to hide his answering wince.

"How long?" he asked again.

Bruce looked confused, but Natasha came through for him on this at least. "Stark and Thor were able to discern and neutralize the threat within hours of the attack," she replied.

Now that was something he was sorry he missed. His team knew him too well though, because Stark himself - which he would have known was present in the first place had people not blocked his line of sight again - promised, "I recorded the whole thing; we can watch it when you're up to it. Hell, we can watch it now and then again when you're up to it for real. It was impressive, really. I mean, I'd like to take some credit for it, but Thor here really went to town on them, totally avenged his nearly fallen comrades and all that." He was gleeful, utterly gleeful about the whole thing, and that alone made Clint tempted to watch it now, if only he could keep his eyes open to do so.

"Thank you for your high praise," Thor boomed, and Clint had to wonder how he had missed his of all presences because the man had a way of filling a room even when silent. It spoke to how out of it he still was, and how sucky this whole healing thing was going to be.

They continued to talk and tell their tales and somewhere around the point where they had figured out the armorer's foster brother was a researcher for AIM, he started listening to the background tune of the monitors more than his team's actual words. He listened as they slowed slightly, a tiny bit more of a pause between each beat, and felt his eyelids grow heavier and heavier, blinking in time to the ping for a moment, then every sixth beat, then it became more of opening them to the sound than closing them.

A hand brushed through his hair again and he no longer cared whose it was. The voice that whispered in his ear was a chorus of them all as it bade, "Get some rest, we've got watch." He let sleep overtake him and decided that, yes, he could follow orders after all.

 

End.